Kennedy K J, Fairbrither G P and Shenzhou Z (2014) Citizenship Education in China: Preparing Citizens for the “Chinese Century” London: Routledge

Edited by Kerry J. Kennedy, Gregory P Fairbrother, Zhenzhou Zhao.

Routledge 2013. 268 pages. Series on Schools and Schooling in Asia.

Hardback: £80.00.

ISBN13: 978-0-415-50272-6

The reader is left in no doubt as to the problematic nature of the term ‘citizenship education’ in China but this selection of papers from both Hong Kong based and mainland China scholars provides us with a broad and fascinating story of the evolution of citizenship education. The question, as to the role that Citizenship education can play in helping to transform China into a more open and liberal society remains unanswered but we are left with a much clearer understanding of the challenges ahead. ‘Liberalisation’ is a common theme used by many of the authors reporting on new forms of citizenship education including volunteerism in universities and the increasing exposure of students to western cultures. The concept of ‘world citizenship’ or ‘global citizens’ is discussed by a number of the authors but the point is well made that the concepts are largely theoretical and that there is as yet, little evidence of the these concepts impacting on classroom practice.

The editors identify three main thematic areas:

  • Theory, history and current debates
  • Local and global perspectives
  • Curriculum and learning perspectives.

The structure is helpful in drawing our attention to the complexity of the state’s challenge of how to modernize traditional ideas of paternalism, to move from a conception of the people as ‘subjects’ to one of ‘citizens’. Whilst ‘paternalism’ clearly had its roots in ‘Confucianism’ it has become a theory of government with the primary objective of social stability.

The development of civic education in the period following the revolution of 1911 and fall of the Qing dynasty brings up some fascinating detail. We learn of the role of ‘The Civic Education Research Committee’ and of the replacement of the traditional moral education curriculum with the modern citizen curriculum in The School System of 1922. Most surprisingly we learn that the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) of China was the first organization to actively promote civic education in a nationwide campaign. However, following government changes in 1927 and the steady growth of bureaucracy, civic education was replaced by the ‘Kuomintang principle curriculum’, adding more ideological elements to the point where, it is claimed, that ‘education’ was replaced by ‘discipline. Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China we learn of the key role of political education in the education system with its focus upon developing patriotism and loyalty to the state.

In the post Mao era, social structures have undergone a fundamental change with citizens enjoying more freedom as a consequence of the market economy and clearly seeking more freedom and rights as citizens, a fact that leads a number of the authors to ‘sever the connection between citizenship education and the already well established political-ideological and moral education’. Keeping in mind the determination of the CPC to maintain its hegemony, we should fully appreciate the contributions of the Mainland China authors in this volume.

Chinese academics, teacher trainers and teachers in school have a key role to play in preparing citizens for ‘the Chinese Century’. Yet we are presented with evidence that ideological and political theory courses in higher education institutions are not well received by students and indeed the claim that the moral conduct of some students has deteriorated. Just one example of the numerous paradoxes that are identified: between objectives and results; between political education and moral education; between developing national citizens and developing world citizens.

One factor that may be of significance in future is the role of new technology and the growth of the social media. In a society where traditionally access to information has been tightly controlled the younger generation of citizens are now able to engage and communicate more freely. Culturally embedded practices are clearly at risk. 

Tony Bates
Independent consultant